In a change to our schedule, our columnist will be taking her place in the ever-lengthening queue of women wearing boxing gloves who want to talk to Ray O'Rourke

I was all set this week to weigh into the debate about the Greater London Authority's new planning guidance on sustainability. But then I came across the reports of Ray O'Rourke's view that building sites were "no place for women", and I'm afraid it was just too tempting - like being offered a box of chocolates just as you were contemplating a plate of wholemeal pasta.

My first thought was why on earth would another intelligent, successful and generally well motivated businessman open himself up to the avalanche of criticism with which this remark would inevitably be greeted. I seem to remember a similar furore over remarks made by Roger Knowles a year ago. But as I reflected on it, what was perhaps even more interesting was the avalanche of reactions.

Fifteen years ago, this sort of comment was greeted with sage nods of agreement or, even worse, a ripple of supportive laughter. I can speak with some confidence here - I was often present when they were made. Now they provoke extensive coverage in Building, complaints from a startling array of bodies representing women who work in the construction industry, and a stream of letters to the editor.

To put my own cards on the table, I believe that women should be able to work, and should be welcomed, more or less anywhere, and certainly on the average building site. It's almost impossible to contemplate a world where women do nothing dirty or potentially dangerous - no more female lavatory cleaners then, or nurses working in A&E on a Saturday night. It's interesting that occupations that have traditionally been the province of women - often part time and low paid - rarely seem to attract such masculine or managerial interest.

I spent my own, wholly enjoyable, career in construction almost entirely in an office, but I became familiar with the industry's general reaction to women during that time: surprise and wariness, only occasionally laced with hostility, which generally translated into a great working relationship once they realised that (a) you knew what you were doing, and (b) you weren't going to faint if they used the word "bloody" in conversation.

Many of the architects and engineers I knew who worked full time on site had similar experiences. A very senior female engineer - one of only a handful of women fellows of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the 1980s - once told me with great glee how the quality of her concrete was always better than that of her male colleagues, because she insisted on it looking exactly right, and had built a team willing to respond to her standards.

Everybody has the right to be the member of a minority without being bullied as a result. That might be a tall order to deliver day in, day out, but that is what being a responsible employer is about

The trades have always been tougher, but women succeed there too. Organisations such as CITB-ConstructionSkills have a good record of attracting them, supporting them and showcasing their successes.

There is no doubt in my mind that women can function effectively on building sites. Whether the conditions - practically and culturally - are good enough is another matter altogether. But that has got nothing to do with the sex of workers. Everybody deserves a workplace with decent facilities, proper health and safety procedures, and the right to be a member of a minority of any type without being bullied as a result. That might be a tall order to deliver day in, day out, but that is what being a responsible employer is about.

In that context, it seems particularly surprising that it was Ray O'Rourke who made these comments. Major contractors such as Laing O'Rourke have a good record on site conditions, and often lead the way on health and safety. They are also patently committed to excellence and team building and, as his (female) director of people was quick to point out, they have been actively recruiting women for a number of years.

"The monstrous regiment", as John Knox once bravely described the more powerful members of the female race, has to be part of the answer to the skills issue facing the industry. If more employers set about attracting them, and ensuring their sites were places where everyone, men and women, could work safely and well, that would be a terrific step forward.

Oh, and for the record, the Greater London Authority's requirements in its planning guidance on energy might be getting a mixed reaction, but the requirements on materials use and recycling are excellent - clear, forward thinking and perfectly achievable.